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Fish-farming at Byland

Planning permission
The monks of Byland clearly learnt from past experiences, and in the thirteenth century ensured they had written confirmation of their right to make a dam at Cams Head. An agreement was drawn up with the Colville and Dayvill families authorising the monks to create, build and repair the fishpond here. The monks agreed that should the water flood the road leading from their abbey to Kilburn, they would remake this.

[McDonnell, 'Inland fisheries', pp. 25-26.]

Byland may have had about twelve fish ponds (stews) in the early fourteenth century, with a combined size of about sixty hectares. Today, these form some of the best-preserved earthworks in Yorkshire.(20) The earliest pond was at Kilburn, south of the valley, and was built when the community was still at Stocking and the site at New Byland was being prepared for monastic occupation (1147-1177). This is shown as Pond A on the map. The monks seemingly had permission from Robert Dayvil to build a dam here but, without written authorisation this right was contested and in 1190 the community was forced to surrender its pond with the path that surrounded it so that Robert's men could fish here, and also the dam that stood between High Kilburn and Midelberg. Documentation of this dispute survives.(21) Byland sought to create a second pond at Oldstead, by Cams Head farm, and the community was granted permission to do so by Henry III in 1234/5. This second pond was a little closer to the monastery and also slightly smaller, covering about 45 acres. It is marked as Pond B on the map. By 1245 the monks were ready to stock their new pond and received ten prime female bream from the royal pond at Foss, courtesy of Henry III.(22)

The large stone dam at Cams Head survives. It extends some 400m in length and stands about five metres high. Cams Head is of particular interest today and contains some of the best earthworks of its kind. Excavation of the site here yielded a wealth of information regarding the nature of monastic fishing in the Middle Ages. A variety of clay and lead weights were uncovered, some of which would have been used for trawling and others for hand-held nets. A remarkable find was the remains of a medieval fishing hut, complete with smoking house. This was uncovered to the south of Olstead farm but has since been ploughed over. It was probably used for storing tackle and curing fish, to preserve them.(23)

Fish hooks (c.1400) and shuttle (c.1500) for mending nets, from Fountains Abbey
© Cistercians in Yorkshire
<click to enlarge>
Fish hooks (c.1400) and shuttle (c.1500) for mending nets, from Fountains Abbey

In addition to these large ponds, Byland established two mill ponds to the south of the abbey, and a chain of small ponds to the west of the precinct, on the way to Oldstead and the Hambleton Hills. Each of these had its own dam.
The twelfth-century mill pond received the outfall from the sewer and powered the cornmill. It was later used to supply the abbey fulling mill, and a second mill pond was created in the SW corner of the precinct to power the cornmill.